It's Funny Because It's (not) True

Alex Heard, in The New Republic, reports how David Sedaris makes up some of the stories that he presents as nonfiction. (Link)

I like David Sedaris, but I have wondered whether some of his material is too good to be true. And I do think that being true is a big part of why his stuff is funny. A story that’s forgettable in fiction can be hilarious when you think it actually happened. (And not just hilarious, but more touching and more meaningful.) A piece of contrived crap can be important if it really happened.

Of course, Sedaris knows this, just like James Frey knew it, which is why he presents it as nonfiction in the first place. And it bugs me.

Now, to be careful here, this doesn’t go as far as saying that a humorist claiming to write nonfiction can’t slightly change conversation to make a funny thing funnier. Or describe his feelings with a bit of description that’s not strictly accurate. But the gist of the event has to be real. The main point has to be the same. It can’t just be made up from nothing, or else we’re just being lied to.

I have a cousin. Let’s call him Jared (since that’s his name). Jared may not do this anymore, but he used to have a habit of taking something that happened (or might have happened) and squeezing it until it seemed funny, while still presenting it as true. The problem is that he’d often have to squeeze it completely out of shape, to a point where it looked nothing like it used to. He’d squeeze it until it was ridiculous, because ridiculous things are funny WHEN THEY’RE TRUE.

To make a ridiculous thing seem funny when you’re not presenting it as truth is a lot harder. Mel Brooks can do it. The Farrelly brothers can do it. Most people can’t do it, and when they write fiction, they have to stick to things that the audience could actually imagine happening in real life. Otherwise, people just roll their eyes.

Jared had a million stories, but one of them is how I once fell asleep while doing the dishes. That’s pretty funny. Now, if I were writing fiction, I’d stay away from writing that a guy actually fell asleep while doing the dishes, because it’s not believable. If I can tell it as biography though, then it’s pretty funny.

But telling it as biography when it’s all made up is just lying.

So we have David Sedaris telling how he went through a series of funny episodes while working at a mental health facility, culminating in a woman biting his arm with her few remaining teeth. Sedaris tells TNR that he made it all up. He worked there, but none of the stuff he described actually happened. (The stuff that did happen wasn’t very funny.)

And we have him describing a wholly invented scene about his guitar teacher thinking that he was making a pass at him. This scene is so contrived that *if it weren’t true,* it would never make it to prime time.

And we have at least a couple of cases of witty dialog that Sedaris admits no one ever said.

I don’t think this is ok.

Of course, this brings up memories of the Million Little Pieces lie. Some people say that it’s ok to lie as long as you tell beautiful story. Call it nonfiction or call it a salami sandwich, a good read is a good read. Or, hey, you enjoyed it while you read it (because you thought it was true), so you got something out of it.

That doesn’t fly with me. And I guess that part of the point is that I don’t like a liar cashing in on his willingness to lie in order to sell more books. My experience with the final product aside, I don’t want cheaters to prosper.

Besides, my disappointment at finding out the truth FAR outweighs whatever chuckles I got from reading the thing in the first place. So now I’m annoyed with Sedaris, and my copy of “Naked” (thanks, JB) and “Me Talk Pretty One Day” are no longer making me happy.

7 Responses to It's Funny Because It's (not) True

  1. Phil March 28, 2007 at 5:13 am #

    I agree. Trust is important and fragile. Too important to sacrifice for amusement. But oddly, I think I’d be satisfied with microscopic print or nearly inaudible mention somewhere that confessed that it was fiction. I picture my wife’s grandfather holding out to his dying day that it was Santa, and not he who put the presents under the tree. The glint in his eye told the story to the one who was sharp enough to catch it.

  2. JB March 28, 2007 at 5:48 am #

    Y’know, I’ve always wondered whether his stories are supposed to be true because they’re just too perfect. I even went so far as to look in the books for some sort of note that “this is all true, and it happened” or, obviously, something to the opposite.

    It seems like typical humorists take a true event and describe it in a funny way, or have funny comments to make about it, but when you think about the event itself it probably wasn’t at all funny. But I’ve always had the impression that Sedaris’ stories have funny actions and events and dialogue in them, and that that stuff is all so perfect that it just can’t be true, and I’ve wondered if I’m a fool for even thinking they might be.

    I never got the impression that Sedaris claimed anything in either direction, although I really haven’t paid attention to anything other than the stories in the books or on This American Life.

    I consider them to be tall tales, along the lines of “this one time I wrestled a mountain lion for the love of an Indian girl” or like Mark Twain but in the first person.

  3. weeklyrob March 28, 2007 at 6:29 pm #

    JB: To quote the article’s first paragraph:

    “The events described in these stories are real,” humorist David Sedaris wrote in the introductory note to Naked, his 1997 collection of nonfiction essays. The New York Times was convinced: When Naked hit the best-seller list, it categorized the book as nonfiction. The Library of Congress called it biography, and Sedaris assured several interviewers over the years that the book was essentially factual. “Everything in Naked was true,” he told the webzine GettingIt in 1999. “I mean, I exaggerate. But all the situations were true.”

    Then it turned out that many of the situations weren’t true. Not exaggerated, but made up. I also think that some of his stuff sounds too perfect to be true, but he DID claim that they’re true, and he lied when he made that claim.

  4. JB March 28, 2007 at 7:44 pm #

    huh. i *did* look, i swear! maybe i didn’t look in Naked though. in any case, I vote we string him up.

  5. sonofsamsung March 29, 2007 at 7:05 am #

    Yeah, I’ve wondered about him too. Like, what if you decided to spend your holidays as an elf at Macy’s for the story you will get out of it, and nothing funny or noteworthy happens? People clock in, clock out, change clothes, smoke cigarettes, etc. That was a month of your life! The temptation would be to make stuff up to justify your time spent there.

    I feel the same way about Augusten Burroughs. Shouldn’t he have run out of horribly embarrassing, humorously horrific stories by now? He just keeps churning ’em out!

  6. BruceS March 29, 2007 at 3:33 pm #

    I’ve Jaredized a bit myself, but when I do it I try to be sure my audience knows I’m embellishing heavily. As Hollyweird says, “Based On A True Story”, or even more loosely “Inspired By A True Story”. It may be just lying, but with no intention of misleading and every intention of entertaining.

    There was a bit on Simpsons, with Leonard Nimoy (OK, I’m pretty sure I misspelled his name, but I’m too lazy to look it up) narrating. He says something like:
    “The stories you are about to hear are true. By which we mean false. They’re all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and isn’t that *real* truth? The answer is ‘no’.”
    Dave Barry likes to say “I’m not making this up”, followed by a brief truth, followed by a lot of amusing lies.

    You don’t want cheaters to prosper. Neither do I, but what can we do? Nacchio is on trial, but will probably get off with little or no punishment. Anshutz is unlikely to ever be tried. Gates will probably live out a long life of ill-gotten riches. Etc. Anyway, I got mine, so it’s all right.

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